‘The system will still need you to compose symphonies’

I listen to music with my daughter on YouTube and Spotify; she likes YouTube because of the videos. I choose the songs. Often I choose music by written and, or, performed by women: Patti Smith, Nina Simone, Eliza Carthy, The Chordettes, 4 Non Blondes, the Be Good Tanyas, Joni Mitchell, Joan Armatrading, Sandy Denny, Aretha Franklin. (Click on the links and have a party!)

Part of the point of this has been to let her listen to music, but to avoid inappropriately adult lyrics. Also to let her look at different hues, shapes and styles of women: people she can admire who aren’t stick thin and gyrating in their underwear. An inoculation against the MTV effect.

I mention MTV because, when I worked in a boarding school – ten years ago now – that is what the girls (aged 11 – 18) played constantly in their common room. I watched with them. I remember a few particular stinkers – Britney Spears ‘Piece of Me’ and Girls Aloud ‘Can’t Speak French’. But there were thousands of videos; millions of closeups of gleaming quivering thighs and pouting parted mouths. I hated the way the younger girls drank it in with their eyes; I wasn’t surprised to hear from a parent that, after nine months at school, their twelve year old was adamant she needed a bikini wax. Kids probably watch more music online now, but I don’t imagine the demands made on female performers have changed.

Recently, I played my daughter Mama Cass, Make Your Own Kind of Music. A woman with a voice to make you cry, who proves you can be lovely and ignore modern rules about how women on TV must look. But, as I was searching for the song, the search algorithm suggested Paloma Faith’s version. The difference between the two exposes how conformist modern musicians are required to be. The video makes pathetic gestures at illustrating the meaning of the original words: a whispered voice-over at the beginning hints that the singer is unconventional; they put her in a couple of quirky outfits – sci-fi style and mardi gras. But the outfits are still skin tight, with stilettos, and Faith has a gym body. She is also advertising Skoda cars, which I guess doesn’t leave those making the video infinite room for creativity. Individuality, in the Paloma Faith video, becomes just another manufactured style – like the ready-made ‘punk’ and ‘artist’ accessories you can buy in Topshop.

My daughter (what a surprise!) spotted the Paloma Faith version and wanted that. She knew I didn’t; she could tell this was the sort of video other people in her class might recognise. And why shouldn’t she want that? It’s natural for a child to be fascinated by the big wide world, and it’s not a crime to want to fit in. Also, I want my daughter, ultimately, to decide for herself who she is. Listening to loud music as a method of scorning one’s parents is a traditional way for children to develop an identity (though maybe not at the age of six).

But it isn’t the 1990’s. We aren’t in Kansas anymore. What I found disturbing and insidious about this particular disagreement with my child was that I was in combat with an algorithm. (Not one that predicts what else you want to hear based on your data-set, but still – a mathematical program as oppose to a person.) I was not the stereotypical mother who fights a futile war against perceived corruption coming from other people. The corruption was being suggested to me, in my own home, by an algorithm.

Algorithms now shape what we watch and listen to – 60 percent of films watched on Netflix are recommended by Netflix’s own algorithm (Kevin Slavin, NPR, 2015). Kevin Slavin (Founding Chief Science and Technology Officer at The Shed, NY) argues that we’re living in a world designed for – and increasingly controlled by – algorithms: you can watch his extremely popular Ted Talk to learn about this. Slavin says we need to use algorithms in conjunction with human intelligence rather than allow them to run unchecked. He gives examples of algorithms ‘with no adult supervision’ causing all sorts of problems, such as insane prices on Amazon, stock market crashes, useless traffic control systems and worse.

I am worried about young people being shaped by algorithms rather than by other human beings. Because, as far as my limited understanding goes, algorithms create symmetrical mathematical outcomes. I don’t want my daughter to be sorted into a neat category of young people who like a certain type of thing, then pushed further along that same road along with all the other young people in the same category. Especially if that category is girls who like girly stuff. I don’t want a computer to suggest she listen to hours of sexy pop music and watch endless chick flicks starring skinny actresses with big breasts, whose acting consists of wiggling their buttocks and, or, eyebrows.

I don’t let her control the computers at the moment, but she is already under the influence of other children who are in categories, and their parents who have also been sorted by their computers.

Maybe our children will never have CD collections. Browsing, swapping compilations and stealing a friend’s CDs will no longer be normal ways to develop a personal taste. How can young people today develop their taste? A music critic for the New York Times, Ben Ratliff, recently published ‘Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen to Music Now’, in which he offers ways to appreciate music in a world where we are fed playlists by algorithms – “At the very least we should try to listen better than we are being listened to.” A fair point – learning to listen carefully, with appreciation, is a way to combat the meaninglessness that can come from rivers of music, which an algorithm decides is your thing.

But discernment isn’t enough for children who might never encounter anything apart from what an algorithm spews out. I don’t have a good solution to that problem, but I  am going to hang on to my tapes, CDs and records. Because my children might one day go crazy and want to listen to music that is not at all connected to what they already like.

 

 

 

 

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